Son: Signal of Authority
INCUBE ARTS | MAY 7 – 28, 2016
To regenerate an inquiry into the pairing of authority and patriarchy, curators Boliang Shen and Zhanglun Dai reconsider the historical centrality of the father-son narrative, a structure that persists, with varying degrees of opacity, in various gestures of forgetting, revolt, repetition, and destruction. Inspired by Avital Ronell’s meditation on the entangled pursuits of origin and progeny in Loser Sons: Politics and Authority (2012), Shen and Dai’s first show in New York investigates the archetypal son in a flux of power relations. The exhibition is anchored by Shakespearian epic on one end and modern-day terrorism on the other; four video works by young male artists embody a spectrum of contemporary permutations in between.
The show begins with a sonic infiltration—a recording of Ariel’s song “Full Fathom Five” as he consoles a bereaved Ferdinand in The Tempest. The sound permeates the space, opening up the father-son circuit to unknown excursions:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
The space itself indeed looks like a sea change from the usual white-box gallery: low ceiling with plaster molding, French doors, squeaky wooden flooring, staircase and decorative railing all invoke the prototypical family living room (a tad worn, somewhat tacky, inexplicably dreadful), which takes an immediate, physical toll on the viewer. In front of each screen are a pair of nondescript stools, one high and one low, connected by a cotton thread—the seemingly gimmicky symbolism actually forces negotiations between exhibition-goers and the space, setting up the uneasy ride that follows.
Yan Xing’s hour-long performance video DADDY Project (2011) consists of a single continuous close-up of the artist, his back turned against the camera, delivering a story about his coming-of-age father complex to a live audience. His is a classic absent father, an omnipresent tyrant who facilitates the dramatic loosening of the foundational signifier, a confused, fluid, often multiple “daddy,” for narrative play. The artist’s invisible face toys with a pretense of interiority, commanding our attention, empathy, and desire: we are compelled to look at the skin on his buzz-cut head, the creases in his vertical black-and-white striped shirt, the reflections of fluorescent spotlights on his faux-leather vest quivering at each passionate twitch of the shoulder—even after a tacit agreement that a foundational absence has been displaced onto the performer-audience relationship, which is only valorized through the act of viewing. The pleasure of voyeurism is immense, as is the thrill of being a surrogate father, however uneasy we may feel to be reminded that authorship commands without recourse to coercion.
Rafael Kelman’s Untitled (Events That Were Never) (2013) is a measured study of the uncanny convergences between the artist’s family history of resistance and the contemporary war on terror; it recalls the feminist maxim that the “personal is political.” Merging fragments of architecture, landscape, and verbatim theater with tropes of father, son, and agent provocateur, the artist’s visual writing collapses the degrees of separation between his paternal great uncle, Helle Hirsch, a German Jew executed in 1937 for plotting to bomb the infamous Zeppelin Tribune in Nuremberg, and a young man named Hosam Smadi who fell under the spell of jihad in a post-9/11 FBI sting operation in Texas. What might resemble the apex of a perverse divine order ends up nothing more than a neutral yet shifting ground for Kelman’s attempts at the art of mime following instructions from his own father, who studied mime to avoid the draft. A part of the artist’s ongoing project Gigantomachy, Untitled’s contemplation on political action, fanaticism of the will, and allegories of mimicry may be closest in pathos to Ronell’s “noble loser”—where Hirsch, in his final words, refuses to be cast as a hero.
Methodical reconfigurations of mythology are found in Ben Hagari’s staging of the creation myth in Potter’s Will (2015). As the potter’s hands give form to matter on a spinning potter’s wheel, the circular stage begins to rotate in its own orbit, with which the camera moves in accelerating synchronicity. From the disorienting motion merges a new set of spatial relations that reverse the hierarchy between the creator and his creations so that objects impose their own, immaculately constructed cosmos. Inside the kiln, the artist’s lanky body covered in dripping wet clay moves close to fire, awaiting primordial miracle and terror; his staff transforms into Moses’s serpent in an ambiguous moment—does it bite or heal? The fathers will remain unknown, but running through the two disparate conditions are a consistent set of archetypal metaphors rendered pleasurable for visual consumption.
Chen Zhou’s early video Wake Up, My Son, You’re Still In Dream (2011) attempts at personal myth making with cinematic tropes of domestic horror and melodrama. In an absurd Lynchian sequence, shot between crimson velvet curtains and oversaturated green succulents, the power dynamic between an effeminate son and his overbearing father is transformed: each is sleepwalking in his own nightmare. In classic mythological fashion, the narrative veers towards patricide: the older man surrenders to the awakened son and vanishes, leaving a puddle of unknown liquid and a sickening viscosity in the air. The bedroom stays still; the young man relapses into another reverie, his triumph as dubious as the father’s dissolution.
There is yet no exit from our binding to the paternal, all actions considered. The missing father circles back in the last exhibit—the reproduction of a New York Times article from September 19, 2011, cited in Loser Sons, in which hijacker Mohamed Atta’s father denies the manhood and consequently the death of his weakling boy. Ferdinand grieves the false death of his murderous father, whereas the modern son, like innumerable figures caught in the intrigues of history, is denied proper mourning and is thus denied the possibility of coming to terms with the past.
KANG KANG is a writer and translator who has contributed to the Brooklyn Rail, LEAP, Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, ArtReview Asia, and other forms of publication. She holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature & Society from Columbia University and works as a Senior Production Assistant at the Rail.